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Lords seek powers to block Telegraph takeover

Baroness Stowell of Beeston
Chairman of the Communications and Digital Committee Baroness Stowell put forward the proposed amendment - Dan Kitwood/Getty Images Europe

The UAE-funded takeover of The Telegraph could be blocked under proposed laws that would grant Parliament a veto on foreign state ownership of the British news media.

An amendment that would require approval from both the House of Commons and the House of Lords for such deals has been tabled to the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill.

The proposed change was put forward by Baroness Stowell, the chairman of the Communications and Digital Committee and a former Conservative cabinet minister.

It has the support of other prominent figures from across the benches.

Lord Robertson, the Labour former defence secretary who once headed up Nato, and Lord Anderson, the crossbench peer and former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, have both signed the amendment.

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So too has Lord Forsyth, the former Tory Scottish secretary.

The move comes with RedBird IMI, a fund 75pc financed by the UAE, attempting to buy The Telegraph and The Spectator magazine.

However, the proposed takeover is currently in limbo pending an investigation by Ofcom.

The media regulator is scheduled to deliver its report to the Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer by March 11, who will have powers to block the deal.

Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer will have the powers to block the deal once Ofcom delivers its report
Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer will have powers to block the UAE-funded takeover once Ofcom delivers its report - Victoria Jones/PA

MPs and peers from various political parties have raised concerns about the bid, questioning whether freedom of the press would be undermined by foreign state ownership.

Baroness Stowell said of her amendment: “It would be such a significant thing for a foreign power to own one of our news organisations that it shouldn’t be possible without the approval of Parliament.

“This is not a partisan issue. It is a point of principle. We pride ourselves on a free press and a free media in this country. If ever it were to happen it should not be possible without Parliament formally agreeing. It is that significant.”

The amendment would not impose an outright ban on foreign state ownership of British media organisations.

The Government would still be able to consider such deals and approve them if desired.

However, it would require that both MPs and peers give their seal of approval before pressing ahead.

Currently, no such requirement exists, with the decision sitting with ministers.

An investor linked to the Saudi state is already a major shareholder in The Independent, an online-only outlet. The Government sought to intervene but was found to have left it too late by the High Court.

An explanatory note for the amendment reads: “This amendment would prevent the acquisition of a UK news media organisation by a foreign power without the approval of both Houses of Parliament.”

The amendment, if passed, could in theory block the UAE-funded takeover of The Telegraph, though many steps would have to be taken before that happened.

Firstly, the amendment would have to be passed in a Lords vote. Whether or not that happens is likely to depend on the Conservative and Labour parties choosing to support it before ordering their peers to do the same.

Baroness Stowell, who served in Lord Cameron’s cabinet as leader of the Lords, is expected to engage in talks with senior figures from both parties.

Debate and votes on amendments to the Bill are scheduled for March 11 and March 13.

Should it be passed by the Lords and not removed by the Commons, much will then depend on when the overall bill is given royal assent, at which point the requirement becomes law.

That is expected to happen by the summer.

It remains to be seen if the Government would still be considering whether to approve or continue investigating the takeover by that point.

Some of the other signatories explained their reasons for backing the amendment.

Lord Robertson said: “I believe in a free press and in diversity of the press. I think that foreign countries owning elements of the press diminish that diversity.”

Lord Forsyth said: “I am supporting the amendment because I think Parliament ought to protect our national newspapers from being taken over by foreign governments. That is an essential part of protecting a free press.”